Darwinian Heritage on Gower Street at UCL

Charles Darwin Blue Plaque on Gower Street London WC1 | ProfJoeCain
Charles Darwin Blue Plaque on Gower Street London WC1, by Professor Joe Cain

English Heritage commemorates Charles Darwin with a blue plaque located on Gower Street in Bloomsbury, central London. The “Darwin plaque” is fixed to the Darwin Building, one of the substantial science buildings of University College London (UCL). English Heritage rules allow only one plaque per person in London, and this is the location for Darwin’s one commemorative plaque from that organisation. Why was this location chosen for the blue plaque? The answer is not as obvious as might appear. This essay explores the interplay between history and heritage in that answer. Heritage is a use of the past for purposes in the present. Heritage builds on a foundation of facts, but it draws in many other elements, too. The language of “true” and “false” is inadequate for interpreting heritage owing to both underdetermination and selective use of those facts. The blue plaque for Charles Darwin on Gower Street in central London is a revealing example of the interplay between history and heritage.

A Little History on Gower Street

Superficially, the location for Darwin’s London blue plaque was chosen because it was once the site where Darwin lived: number 12 Upper Gower Street was a terraced house along a quiet side street in Bloomsbury.

The terrace was constructed in the 1790s. Charles and Emma Darwin rented this house during their first three years of marriage. The first night Charles and his servant slept in the house was 31 December 1838, waking on the morning of 1 January 1839. Emma arrived on their wedding night of 29 January 1839. They vacated the property on 16 September 1842, moving to Down House in the parish of Downe, Kent. Previously, Charles lived in rented accommodation on Great Marlborough Street, London, first with his brother Erasmus at number 43, then alone at number 36. Previously, Emma lived at her family home of Maer Hall in the village of Maer, Staffordshire.

In 2014, I published an essay about the long history of this house, and I spoke about the Darwin’s time in London while living in this house

Cain, Joe. 2014. “Darwin in London.”  The Linnean: Newsletter and Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London 30 (2):13-21.

The property at number 12 Upper Gower Street was let to many others over the decades before and after the Darwins. For instance, previous occupants included Captain Allen Cooper (1801-1804), who commanded East Indiaman ships, as well as Leonard Horner, geologist and warden of University College, with his family and staff (1829-1831). Later occupants included Christopher Temple, Q.C. and staff (1848-1859), and Rev. Emeric Podolski (Polish Catholic Chapel) and staff (1871-1878). (Survey of London).

In 1864, the London County Council reorganised streets in the vicinity of the house. Number 12 Upper Gower Street became 110 Gower Street (maps).

A London architecture magazine described Gower Street in the late 19thC as “one of the dullest, gloomiest thoroughfares in town…[with its] depressing vista of …blackened house-fronts, their monotonous elevations wholly unbroken or unrelieved…” (1887)

Shoolbred at number 106-112 Gower Street, London with 1906 Darwin plaque | ProfoeCain

In the 1890s, James Shoolbred and Company converted properties along Gower Street into commercial premises. This radically changed what the Darwins once knew as number 12. Rennovation significantly changed the frontage, introduced new buildings into the gardens, and demolished the sheds and houses along Upper Gower Mews. A facility of over 182,000 square feet, the frontage of Shoolbred’s warehouse, included boarding houses for up to 300 shop assistants plus stabling for over 100 horses and garages for vans. The hostel was vacated in 1915, used for furniture storage during the Great War.

The first commemorative plaque for Charles Darwin was installed on the Shoolbred facility in 1906, when the location was 110 Gower Street.

The Indian Students’ Union and Hostel took possession of the Shoolbred property, consisting of numbers 106-112. This was used for student accommodation and opened in 1923. This property was “damaged beyond repair” by fire during German bombing of London in 1941. Casualties were not recorded.

The site was cleared and left vacant until 1959, when construction began on the Biological Sciences Buildings (BSB) for University of London, University College (today’s University College London, or UCL).

UCL Darwin Building, entrance on Gower Street | ProfJoeCain

The current blue plaque for Charles Darwin was installed on 11 January 1961, shortly after the BSB’s completion. In July 1959, the Secretary of University College London proposed a new plaque to London County Council, who administered the scheme at that time.


Two plaques have commemorated Charles Darwin on Gower Street | ProfJoeCain
Comparing the 1906 and 1961 commemorative plaques for Charles Darwin in Gower Street. The differences in date reflect differing interpretations on Charles’ date of first occupation.

Heritage and History on Gower Street

The blue plaque on Gower Street was not put in place simply because Darwin lived there. Timing and location were crucial to decisions that led to this result. Here, heritage takes over from history.

Timing was crucial. Darwin was born in 1809. The first plaque was installed to commemorate the centenary of his birth. But it’s more complicated than that.

First, substantial events were planned in England to commemorate this centenary. At the time, most biologists considered Darwin’s work to be antiquated, replaced by nearly fifty years of advancing research, technology, and methods. Darwinists, per se, were few and far between. Centenary celebrations used to identify progress (meaning succession rather than nostalgia), generational change amongst scientists, and improvement. After all, the claim to be “standing on the shoulder of a giant” is meant to suggest that we are the ones who can see farther. A straight-forward narrative about “the founder” also delivered anchorage for British importance against French and German 19thC rivals as well as American or Russian replacements.

Second, Darwin’s significance was re-asserted in London during the first decade of the twentieth century by members of his extended family, principally his son Leonard Darwin and his cousin Francis Galton. These men were advocates of artifical selection in the pursuit of pedigree and lineage. They invested heavily in their own family tree to amass social capital, with frequent reference to that as evidence for the inheritance of desirable social, intellectual, and moral qualities. This found expression in their eugenics campaigns.

Darwin, Wedgwood, Galton family tree created to suggest intelligence and eminence is inherited. Circulated by Eugenics Record Office (US).

Third, in the years leading up to 1906, Galton was physically active on Gower Street. His “Eugenics Record Office” (ERO) opened in 1904 at 88 Gower Street, located at the corner of Gower Street and Torrington Place (on the site of the BSB today). He moved (some of) his research on heredity and inheritance from his home in South Kensington to office space made available by University of London to accommodate one research fellow, one research assistant, and one computing assistant. The ERO was located within 50m of number 110 Gower Street. Galton passed number 110 whenever he walked from the ERO to visit his close friend, Professor Karl Pearson, working in University College’s main building (Wilkins). That building also was located on Gower Street, approximately 100m north from number 110.

view of number 88 Gower Street in relation to 110 Gower Street and University College quad, 1946 aerial photograph courtesy Historic England. Image EAW000537

The 1961 blue plaque was said to be a replacement. This obscures context. Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. Commemorative events also took place in England for this centenary, as well as to recognise 150 years since Darwin’s birth. Events took place elsewhere, too. The overall gist of those commemorations was that Darwinism had been revived. To simplify the narrative of those commemorations: Darwin was a revolutionary, he was rejected or misunderstood by most people for most of a century, and modern science was finally discovering Darwin’s genius once again standing on this giant’s shoulders. Celebrating Darwin again put Britain in central position, supporting claims of Anglo-American dominance in evolutionary biology (will brilliant research by Kettlewell on peppered moths, Cain and Sheppard on Cepaea, and Lack on Galapagos finches) and rejecting Soviet (Lysenko) claims to the contrary. In 1959, construction on the BSB was well under way and the new blue plaque would make a simple addition. 

Location was as crucial as timing. Charles lived elsewhere in London during his life. Each location has equal, or better, claim for importance based on the science undertaken while he lived in each residence.

The 1961 blue plaque is located not only on the site of Darwin’s Gower Street. It also is located on a building associated with University College London (UCL). Darwin had nothing to do with this university. He knew its first warden, Leonard Horner, professionally (both were geologists) and socially (Charles was one-time suitor to two daughters in the Horner family). As a student at University of Edinburgh, Charles studied under Robert Edmond Grant, who became University College’s first Professor of Comparative Anatomy in 1827, thus placing him not more than a few hundred metres from Darwin’s house. Evidence for their interaction in London is sparse. This is presumed to be because Darwin perceived a reputational risk of association with the politically radical and unfashionably influenced Professor Grant, assuming Adrian Desmond’s analysis in The Politics of Evolution.

Darwin’s personal history was irrelevant for those desiring a “replacement” blue plaque. Instead, advocates within Bloomsbury were only too happy to reinforce any association between an eminent scientist and universities in the vicinity. The new BSB building was a facility for University College, and University College was part of the federated University of London. Biological sciences were expanding rapidly in Bloomsbury in the late 1950s. A Darwin association offered a small but welcome addition to rivalries over prestige between University of London and University of Cambridge (with its own Darwin associations in 1909 and 1959) as well as within University of London between University College and sister institutions. As a result, Gower Street had advocates eager to use Darwin for purposes in the present day. Alternatives locations lacked similar advocates.

UCL Darwin Building, entrance on Gower Street | ProfJoeCain

Darwin plaque on Darwin Building

Today, the Darwin blue plaque is located on UCL’s Darwin Building. In 1961, this facilty was first named the Biological Sciences Building. Professor Richard Darwin Keynes FRS, Darwin’s great-grandson, unveiled a plaque inside the Gower Street entrance.

The building name was changed in 1982. Darwin died in 1882, and 1982 saw another set of centenary commemorations. Some commemorations were championed by those eager to note the “death of Darwinism” either in evolutionary theory (replaced by new principles and more principals in a more pluralist discourse) or in the biological sciences (replaced by biochemistry and molecular biology who positioned themselves as competitors to old-school zoology and botany). Not keen on these trends, strongly pro-selectionist, and wishing to assert opposition on both lines of argument, evolutionary biologists at University College campaigned to rename the BSB to “Darwin Building,” justifying their proposal on location and the pre-eminence of a national genius. They wanted a connection to Darwin because they wanted support for their approach to biology in opposition to other approaches. A decision in their favour was interpreted as explicit support for evolutionary biology and for a pro-Darwinian interpretation of it.

Heritage uses History Selectively and Purposefully

No single group owns heritage. Everyone is free to craft their own. Heritage isn’t history. It’s a use of the past for purposes in the present. Heritage builds on evidence from the past, but it uses much more than facts – however construed – to construct the stories it tells. Heritage is glue; it is set down with purpose. It creates emotional bonds between people and a set of ideas, things, moments, or other people.

In some settings, one heritage story dominates. In other settings, multiple heritage stories coexist. Perhaps, they exist in conflict, or in competition, or in conjunction. Rare is the setting where only one heritage story really exists. More likely, other stories lack the power or opportunity to be told.

Because heritage is built on evidence, it’s tempting to think heritage can be judged true or false. That’s a mistake. Heritage is history put to work for the present. That work is selective and purposeful.